Yesterday I spent the day in a weird world of weather. Hurricane Ophelia barely touched Bournemouth, the seaside town where I live on the south coast of England, but what it did do was bring clouds full of sand from the Sahara Desert and dump some of it on my car.
It also filled the sky between me and the sun so, like many people across the UK, I passed the day in an eerie red-lit Martian world of dust and red light. Attached to this post is a picture of the view from my window that morning. It looks like the cover of a 1950s pulp SF paperback. By noon the sun, still embedded in the pillow of dark sky, had turned deep deep orange We were all rather thrilled by this weather. We were physically safe where we were, but excited by this connection with something so much bigger than ourselves. What might this tell us in terms of biophilic design?
A recent article by Kevin Nute, Professor of Architecture at the University of Oregon, explains how, in the 1950s, Donald Hebb’s Arousal Theory established that people need a degree of changing sensory stimulation in order to remain fully attentive. Nute is interested in bringing nature indoors in the form of movement created by light, wind and water. There is evidence that it makes occupants calmer and more productive.
Light shelves, for example, are devices that are commonly retrofitted to the windows of existing buildings to reflect daylight deeper into an interior. Former University of Oregon master’s degree student Aaron Weiss and I have shown that when a shallow layer of water is added to the top of a light shelf and is disturbed by the wind, the shelf reflects moving sunlight patterns onto the ceiling inside.
Nute is part of a group of architects and psychologists at the University of Oregon that has been examining ways to overcome this problem using an aspect of nature available anywhere: the weather. He writes:
Think of rippling sunlight reflecting from water onto the underside of a boat, or the dappled shadows from foliage swaying in a breeze. Other examples can be seen at vitalarchitecture.org.
When we brought these kinds of natural movements indoors, we found that they reduced heart rates and were less distracting than similar, artificially generated movement. Early results suggest that seeing live natural movement of this kind in an indoor space may be more beneficial than viewing outdoor nature through a window, and could not only help to keep us calm but also improve our attention.
Yesterday we had a rare opportunity to experience an unusual outdoor nature, but ironically it reminded me more of a piece of indoor art: Olafur Eliasson’s amazing indoor sun exhibited in the Turbine Hall at the Tate. I sadly missed the show at the time, but at least now I’ve had a glimpse of what it might have looked like. From weather to art and back again.
Featured photo: Bournemouth, 10.30am , 16 October 2017 as Hurricane Ophelia passes over Ireland, bringing Saharan sand to the UK.